Slow and Costly: Rural Schools’ Broadband Problems

By Sam Milton — November 25, 2015 2 min read
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A new Education Week series chronicles the immense challenges some rural school districts have faced in accessing and paying for faster Internet.

Network providers across the country have charged high monthly service rates to rural school districts, whose sparse populations make it difficult for the companies to justify the cost of providing high-speed lines in such remote locations.

Consequently, in 2014 the FCC decided to overhaul the longstanding E-Rate program, funneling $1.5 billion into viable alternatives for providing high-speed Internet for as many schools as possible while deducting rates by 25 percent.

Though the new rules are getting some encouraging results, as the series reveals, there is still a long process ahead in assisting many rural schools to keep up with the rest of the country.

More About The Series

Chapter 1 reveals the plight of the Calhoun County, Miss., school district, located in a small county without a strong enough Internet connection to do online research in their schools. “Frustrating is a mild word for it,” says district Superintendent Mike Moore, whose district is billed a whopping $9,275 each month for their Internet service.

In the series, Education Week reporter Benjamin Herold and photographer Swikar Patel, follow high school senior C.J. Weddle, who worries that the lack of exposure to Internet resources will come back to haunt her in college. “I’m worried that I’ll get to [college] and they’ll say, ‘OK, here’s your first research project, go do it. And I’m just sitting there, lost, like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

Chapter 2 describes the struggles exhibited in Catron County, N.M., where “harsh geography and a lack of competition lead to astronomical bills for schools desperate to get their students online.” These prices stem from the reluctance of telecommunications companies, whose cost-benefit analysis is heavily one-sided when considering the expensive installation of high-speed Internet lines when so few are benefitting.

The FCC hopes to counter this problem by increasing market competition, fighting against monopolized systems, and thereby forcing more companies to lower their rates to compete with each other. This may be easier said than done.

Chapter 3 describes the FCC’s 2014 overhaul of the E-rate program in order to spread high-speed Internet to more schools across the country. Calhoun County will eventually become a testing ground for the program’s new approach.

The new legislation requires rates from telecoms to be public, prioritizes Wi-Fi and broadband access for schools over outdated technology such as telephones, and offers subsidies to companies who help to connect rural communities.

Despite this, telecoms have resisted, citing a potential waste of money. So despite the optimism resulting from the E-rate overhaul, the problem continues.

Photos, from top:

  • Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
  • Vardamar High School World History teacher Brad Easley attempts to connect to the internet in class. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.